Sexual Abuse Victims Groups Criticise Pope's "Cynical" Meeting


July 21, 2008

Pope Benedict met victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in the last hours of his nine-day visit to Australia, underlining his earlier public apology for the pain they have suffered.

But his efforts have been criticised by victim support groups, who accused the church of stage managing the meeting, choosing people who would not speak out.

The Pope held a private mass in a chapel at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney and then spoke privately with four representatives of abuse victims two men and two women - for around an hour "as an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the church", the Vatican said in a statement.

Pope Benedict during World Youth Day.
Photo by Greg Wood

"He listened to their stories and offered them consolation," the statement said. "Assuring them of his spiritual closeness, he promised to continue to pray for them, their families and all victims.

"Through this paternal gesture, the holy father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all victims of sexual abuse."

It is believed to be the first time the Pope has specifically apologised for sexual abuse by clergy and stated clearly that abusers should be brought to justice.

The statement went further than what he said in the United States during a visit in April when he expressed the church's shame and met privately with a small group of victims.

In Australia, two days earlier, he publicly condemned sexual predators in the church and said he was "deeply sorry" for those who suffered clergy abuse, an evil that deserved "unequivocal condemnation".

The issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has overshadowed his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day with pleas by victims and their families for the pontiff and the church to deal with the issue in an open forum.

Victim support groups accused the church of selecting people who would not speak to the Pope about compensation.

Bernard Barrett of the Broken Rites group, which estimates there are thousands of clergy sexual abuse cases in Australia, said the majority would take nothing from the meeting.

"It doesn't alter things, because it's purely public relations," Barrett said. "I think it's a cynical exercise."

However, Australia's senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, defended the meetings, saying it was not possible for the pontiff to meet with every victim.

"I was moved by the encounter. I think it will have a positive effect with the people that were there," he said. "The aim was for healing and reconciliation."

When asked whether the victims made suggestions to the Pope about the handling of sexual abuse complaints, Pell said only that the church is open to "constructive, practical" suggestions.

He said the meeting had been planned for "some weeks" and that the victims had been chosen by the church's professional standards office, which is the local body handling abuse claims.

Pell said the victims had requested anonymity.

There have been 107 convictions for sexual abuse in the Catholic church in Australia, but victims' groups say there may be thousands of cases as very few make it to court.

The Pope's visit to Australia for World Youth Day drew around 400,000 from around the world.

The issues of sexual abuse and freedom of speech have been high on the agenda during his visit.

Members of the No to Pope Coalition took the New South Wales government to court after it introduced a new law shortly before the pontiff arrived banning anyone "annoying or inconveniencing pilgrims", which effectively stemmed the right to protest. The law was later overturned by the federal court as unconstitutional.

Summing up his message at a mass on Sunday, the Pope said a "spiritual desert" was spreading throughout the world and challenged young people to create "a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deadens our souls and poisons our relationships". He left Australia for Rome this morning on a chartered plane.

Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, announced the country would post an ambassador in the Vatican for the first time. Tim Fischer, the former deputy prime minister, will take up the position.

The Rev Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, welcomed the announcement.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.